Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills was an eccentric figure, drawing tourists to the New Forest, where he lived, from all around to listen to his wisdom and country lore, and have their photographs taken with him. Brusher became a folk hero whose chosen profession was far removed from the growing materialism of the age. He was the New Forest snake catcher.
Harry Mills was born on 19 March 1840 and lived at Emery Down near Lyndhurst until at least 1861. By the mid-1870s he had become the snake catcher in the woodlands near Sporelake Lawn, not far from Brockenhurst, living in a mud hut of his own construction.
Mills had no fear of adders, catching them with his bare hands. An adder bite can be treated by an ointment made from the adder itself and before medical aid was readily available, New Forest residents went to the snake catcher if they’d been bitten. Those that weren’t used to produce ointment were sent to London Zoo to provide food for the animals.
Harry Mills took time off from his unusual occupation whenever a cricket match was played at Balmer Lawn and became a familiar figure as he carefully swept the pitch between innings, acquiring his nickname of ‘Brusher’.
This remained his way of life for nearly thirty years by which time an old forest law entitled him to claim the land on which his home stood. He decided to build a more spacious hut to give him greater comfort in his old age but vandals destroyed his new residence just as it neared completion. He never recovered from the shock of seeing his new home in ruins and died soon afterwards in 1905.